Jensen Karp survives to write his own ending
When Jensen Karp was 29 years old, his doctor discovered three white spots in his brain. He was informed that these tumors could not be removed, and to start thinking about the possibility of dying.
“They told me to get all my things in line, and to prepare my tombstone,” Karp said.
The first thing he decided was that he needed to tell his story, an unbelievable tale that comes down to this: “When I was 19 years old, I was a rapper and had a million-dollar record deal.”
The full story, written after Karp’s eventual recovery — the tumors never grew larger and are no longer a health threat — is recounted in his recently released memoir, “Kanye West Owes Me $300: And Other True Stories From a White Rapper Who Almost Made it Big.”
The book, which came out June 7, details Karp’s love of rap music when he was growing up in Woodland Hills. He first performed at a friend’s bar mitzvah when he was 12, and wrote a song called “Killin’ at the Playground.” From there, he performed in rap battles at local parties throughout his teenage years.
Jensen Karp with Kanye West. Photo courtesy of Jensen Karp
On a whim one day, Karp phoned into “Roll Call,” a daily rap battle on Power 106 FM. After going up against another rapper, listeners voted him as the winner. The DJs asked his name, and he said, on the spot, “Hot Karl.”
Returning to the show again and again, he eventually made 43 appearances. (The previous record held for winning “Roll Call” was 10 times.)
“As Hot Karl, I mostly made jokes in my raps,” he said. “I was a rapper who was always kidding. Though I was serious about the art form, I had punch lines.”
Pretty soon, the industry became aware of Karp, a white, Jewish kid from the suburbs, and Interscope gave him a $1 million record deal. He recorded his debut album, “Your Housekeeper Hates You,” with the label, and proceeded to collaborate and commingle with artists such as Mya, Fabolous, Redman, will.i.am and Kanye West.
West and Karp became friends over the course of a year, going to movies and eating out together. In one chapter, Karp writes about how West was a determined young producer who wasn’t taken seriously. He calls it “a real-life insight into a megastar when he was still living with his mother. There aren’t tons of Kanye stories about ‘I knew this guy when.’ I tell the truth. We were close.”
Although Karp worked hard on his debut album, eventually, Interscope told him it wasn’t going to release it because of scheduling conflicts. This was at about the time that Eminem — also on the label — was becoming a household name. It turned out that there wasn’t enough room in the game for two white rappers, Karp said.
Karp was devastated. He continued to rap for a while, but his heart wasn’t in it anymore. “It was [painful] at times to write this book,” he said. “It shows everything I went through.”
Eventually, Karp quit rapping. He had majored in writing at USC, and decided to see where that path would take him. When a writing job for “WWE Raw” opened up, he was hired by the pro-wrestling/sports entertainment program, and his comedy writing career blossomed from there.
Karp, now in his mid-30s, works for TV and awards shows these days, and he’s appeared on the web series “Burning Love” and the VH1 show “Barely Famous.” When he’s not writing, Karp runs Gallery1988, which has two locations on Melrose Avenue and showcases pop culture art. It’s been open since 2003 and features four to five group shows per year.
He’s not completely done with rap, though. A few years ago, he wrote a halftime song for the his favorite basketball team, the L.A. Clippers, called “Where You At.” He’s been writing one new rap line per day, and will compose raps for comedians — including one he came up with for the MTV Movie Awards titled, “Leo Got F—-d by a Bear” (referring to Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in “The Revenant”). It was performed by hosts Kevin Hart and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and ended up going viral in April.
Although rap will always be a part of Karp, he’s not interested in getting back into it full time.
“Being 36, there aren’t many words that rhyme with ‘mortgage,’ ” he said. “What do you talk about? I should have children, not a mixtape. Rap is a kids’ game. I’m just happy how I wrote my own ending.”